Friday, July 27, 2018

Singing in the shattered street

Conscientious Objector Memorial,
Dorothy Stevens, 1923
In 1923, Canadian artist Dorothy Stevens carved a plaque that recorded the names of 70 British conscientious objectors (COs) who died “as a result of their ill-treatment and privations whilst resisting in the First World War.” Its inscription, attributed to one of the COs named on the memorial (Royle Richmond), reads, “It is by the faith of the idealist that the ideal comes true.”*

At the time of the war and in its aftermath, however, most people were not sympathetic to COs, but rather saw them as cowards and shirkers. As WWI historian Dr. Gerry Oram notes, “The Army was carrying out massive offensives that went on for months; hundreds of thousands died. Powerful resentment built up towards conscientious objectors, especially where people had lost sons, husbands.”**

Edward L. Davison, a Scottish writer born in Glasgow and friend of both J.C. Squire and Robert Frost, published the following war poem in 1920. 

Conscientious Objector

His was the mastery of life
Who locked the doors on wrath,
And would not join the common strife
At the cold beck of death.

But singing in the shattered street
When it ran dim with blood,
Flung down his soul at England’s feet,
And was not understood.
            —Edward Lewis Davison

Rather than depict the conscientious objector as selfish, lazy, or cowardly, Davison’s poem argues that he has mastered life, refusing to entertain anger or hatred.  Instead, the CO chooses the hard path, risking his life to protest the war as he surrenders his soul to England in what he believes to be an act of patriotism.  

Like most during the Great War, British private Eric Nunn had little respect for COs— until he met one near the front lines in 1918:
Then they brought the ambulance up to this sunken road. Well he was the man that bound me up, the conscientious objector. ‘Cos he was chatting away, he’d got a lovely bedside manner, in the circumstances. He was chatting away, I suppose to calm me down. He told me he was a conscientious objector. I thought he was a great fellow. He really must’ve been a conscientious objector, ‘cos he was right there in the middle. He wasn’t dodging the action in any way or form, he was right there in the middle with me and all the others. Right in the middle of it, he wasn’t dodging anything. He must’ve been really a conscientious objector. I take my hat off to him. It must take a lot of moral courage to stand out and be a conscientious objector in a country at war. You know you are going to be misunderstood and misrepresented, don’t you?***

For those wishing to read more, a discussion of conscientious objectors appears on this blog in the post on Fredegond Shove’s poem “The Farmer,” and the Imperial War Museum site listed in this post's notes provides a rich source of first-hand accounts.
* “Conscientious Objectors Memorial Plaque,” Memorials for Peace and War,, Accessed 24 July 2018.
** Holly Wallis, “WW1: The conscientious objectors who refused to fight,” BBC News,, 15 May 2014, Accessed 24 July 2018.
*** Eric Nunn interview, quoted in “Conscientious Objection,” Voices of the First World War, Imperial War Museum podcast website,, Accessed 24 July 2018.

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